Sports | August 21, 2020 5:41 am

Is This Ben Roethlisberger’s Final Rodeo in Pittsburgh?

At 38 and coming off elbow surgery, Roethlisberger is looking at a make-or-break season

Is This Ben Roethlisberger's Last Round-Up With the Steelers?
Ben Roethlisberger reacts on the sideline during a game against the Patriots. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)
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Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the Steelers.

No. 15: Pittsburgh Steelers
2019 Record: 8-8

Points For: 289 – Points Against: 303
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 9.5

While he was on the way to have elbow surgery to reattach three flexor tendons to the bone of his throwing arm in September, Ben Roethlisberger vowed to his wife that he wasn’t going to trim his beard or cut his hair until he could once again throw an NFL-caliber pass.

About three months ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers put up a video of a clean-shaven Roethlisberger working out with his teammates — much to the chagrin of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who was worried about social distancing.

The message of the video seemed pretty clear: Big Ben is back, baby.

But given his age and the injury he is coming back from, it seems fair to wonder whether that was anything more than wishful thinking from the franchise’s social-media department. At 38, Roethlisberger is one of the oldest quarterbacks in the NFL not named Brady or Brees, and he has taken a beating over the course of his 16-year career, including an additional 21 playoff games.

While there’s some optimism that the elbow surgery and the time off (Roethlisberger’s 2019 season was done after Week 2) will lead to the veteran QB coming back better than ever, it seems entirely plausible that he will come back rusty and lacking speed on his throws, something that often happens to 38-year-old quarterbacks with perfectly healthy elbow tendons.

If Pittsburgh is going to return to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons or make a Super Bowl run for the first time in a decade, Roethlisberger is going to need to bring his A-game, as Pittsburgh no longer boasts an offense that can rely on superstars like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell to help carry the load. True, the Steelers do have playmakers like wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner returning, and added an elite red-zone threat this offseason in tight end Eric Ebron, but it will be Roethlisberger who will prove the key to the team improving upon its 27th-ranked offense from last season, when they managed just 18.1 points per game.

He will have some help on the other side of the ball, as Pittsburgh’s defense made great strides last season, finishing sixth in the NFL in points allowed (18.9) while leading the league in sacks (54) and turnovers (38). A unit that had typically been a weakness now boasts plenty of defensive superstars, including linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, defensive end Cam Heyward and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

If Roethlisberger, listed at 6’5 and 240 lbs., and his surgically repaired elbow can get the offense back on the right track, Pittsburgh’s defense should be strong enough to keep them in almost any game on the schedule. But if he falters in his 17th season or sustains another injury, the Steelers may have to think long and hard about moving on from their longtime franchise QB after 2020. He isn’t getting any younger. Neither, for that matter, is 48-year-old head coach Mike Tomlin, who could also find himself looking for a new job if the Steelers fail to win double-digit games (their projection is 9.5) and return to the playoffs.

“I’m throwing without pain for the first time in years. That’s a nice feeling. I know I’m not getting any younger, but I feel younger because I don’t have any pain,” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March. “I have no doubts I’m going to be able to come back and play well — none.”

The Steelers seem to share that lack of doubt in Roethlisberger’s comeback abilities, as they only have Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges and Denver cast-off Paxton Lynch on the roster behind him, having neglected to select a quarterback in this year’s draft.

Fair enough. As Roethlisberger has proved time and again, he’s tough, and with a career record of 144-71-1 in the regular season and 13-8 in the playoffs with three Super Bowl appearances and two wins, he’s also pretty good. In 2020, the Steelers are going to need Roethlisberger to be both.